Photo of a "live training" centre in a Singapore mall. Photo by our Observer Jolovan Wham. 

The scene is peculiar. In a Singapore shopping mall, a young woman rocks a baby doll in her arms. Another pushes around a wheelchair – in which a third woman sits, looking bored – in endless circles. This is billed as “live training” by domestic maid agencies, who mainly come from Indonesia, Burma, and the Philippines. Our Observers in Singapore are horrified by this display, which they say make women look like mere merchandise.

Video filmed by our Observer Jolovan Wham.

“Live training” takes place in a number of malls and so-called maid agency offices throughout Singapore. Prospective domestic workers do repetitive tasks, in plain view of clients. This practise has been going on for at least a decade, but only recently – due to negative press attention - has it surfaced as a subject of public debate. Last week, the government of the Philippines blacklisted several Singaporean agencies who engage in “live training”. And while Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower said it found no problem with these particular agencies’ practices, it issued a statement Wednesday saying that advertising domestic workers as being “available for hire at cheap or discounted prices” was “unacceptable”.

Many domestic workers typically spend a week or two in “live training” before going to work at their employer’s home. If, for whatever reason, the employer sends them back, they may go through “live training” again until they’re placed in another home. Not all agencies do this, however; some conduct training sessions in private.

“I had to wipe a table for a whole day”

Leila (not her real name) is an Indonesian domestic worker. She went through “live training” a few years ago.

Things didn’t work out with my first employer, so I was sent to a shopping centre to do ‘live training’ for several weeks. It was extremely embarrassing. We did tasks over and over again, with no breaks. Sometimes we weren’t even allowed to go to the toilet or eat.

I had to wipe a table for a whole day. It wasn’t even dirty to begin with. Other times, I would be given a book to read to improve my English, but I had to read it standing up. The people from the agency treated us like we were stupid animals, and screamed at us for the slightest mistake.

“I could cradle a baby doll for hours, but that wouldn’t make me good at taking care of a real baby!”

Jolovan Wham is the executive director of HOME, an anti-trafficking organisation in Singapore. He has visited many so-called ‘maid agencies’.

Usually, women do a repetitive task – many places have them ironing a shirt over and over – for about 30 minutes, then switch to another task. It’s obvious they’re not learning anything. I could cradle a baby doll for hours, but that wouldn’t make me good at taking care of a real baby!

The clients seem to understand that this is just a display for their benefit – they don’t hire a domestic worker because they saw her cradling a baby doll really well. In the agencies I visited, I never saw clients talk to these women. They go to the agencies to set up interviews, and hire based on those.

In these places, they often have signs saying that maids are on sale, that kind of thing. We’ll see if that changes with the ministry’s statement. But what’s also really degrading are the names of some of the agencies themselves, like “Budget Maids” and “24-7 Maids”. Then, there’s the way the agencies describe the domestic workers– they’ll tell prospective employers that Filipinos are intelligent, or that Indonesians are not very smart but quite obedient. They don’t do this in print or on posters, just verbally.
“They’ll tell prospective employers that Filipinos are intelligent or that Indonesians are not very smart but quite obedient”

‘Live training’ is symptomatic of the way Singaporeans as a society view domestic workers. It’s not just the agencies’ fault – our laws do not provide them with adequate protection. Domestic workers are required to live in their employers’ homes, which puts them in a very vulnerable position. They need permission to leave. And often, employers will withhold their passports, works permits, or identification cards.

Moreover, they are in debt right off the bat – they typically pay between six to nine months of their salary as a recruitment fee. They can’t just leave and return to their countries until it’s paid back, so there’s an element of forced labour. Some of them find out upon arrival in Singapore that they were misled about the conditions and hours of the work they have to do. [Editor’s Note: This system is similar to the kafala sponsorship system, practiced in many Middle Eastern countries. The FRANCE 24 Observers filmed a report last year on how this impacted maids in Lebanon].

There have been some small victories – for example, domestic workers recently gained the right to one day off a week – but there is still a long way to go.

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Gaelle Faure (@gjfaure).